A Sweet Surprise? Or Just Confused Consumers?

Like many of you, my jaw sort of dropped to my chest when I saw the first of the “High Fructose Corn Syrup Isn’t So Bad For You After All” commercials on television.  You know, the one where the guy is laying on the ground in a park and, out of nowhere, his girlfriend gives him a bright red popsicle (that magically hasn’t melted one bit), and he accuses her of not loving him because she’s giving him something that contains high fructose corn syrup.

“You know what they say about high fructose corn syrup,” he says.

She asks, “What?”

And he has no answer.

Odds are good if someone asked you that question, you wouldn’t have a clear answer, either.

Heck, I’m writing this article, and I’m not even sure!

Confusion seems to be a running theme in this line of not-so-sweet arguments.  Last week, the media reported that in 2010, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) had petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to allow them to change the term “high fructose corn syrup” to “corn sugar” in the mandatory ingredient lists on packaged foods.  The petition claimed that “many consumers are confused and misled by the ingredient name, mistakenly thinking that high fructose corn syrup is high in fructose“ compared to other sweeteners.

(Oh.  I thought that’s why they called it high fructose corn syrup.  Because it’s high in fructose.  Okay.  I guess I was mistakenly thinking that.)

So last week, several consumer advocacy groups, including the Consumer Federation of America, sent a letter to the FDA stating their firm opposition to this petition, claiming that the refiners are “just trying to fool consumers.”

And lest you think it’s just the corn refiners and the consumer advocates who are confusing people and making accusations of others being confusing, we also have the “real” sugar producers themselves jumping into the mix.  They are actually suing the CRA for calling their product “corn sugar” and, as they put it, “misleading consumers.”

Well, regardless of all the misleading terms and confusing information out there, one thing is perfectly clear.  The reason for the proposed change of term is that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has earned itself a pretty bad reputation.   In the world of bad processed foods, this particular corn syrup has become reviled as the baddest of them all, denounced as more likely to cause obesity and its resulting diseases than regular table sugar.  Because of these sound bites, many consumers do their best to avoid foods that contain the offensive elixir.

They just aren’t exactly sure why.

Scientists, doctors, and nutritionists add to the confusion as they weigh in with different opinions on the product.  Some, like Dr. Mark Hyman, author of the Blood Sugar Solution, argue at great length that HFCS is not at all natural but a processed industrial food product, one that is more rapidly absorbed by the blood stream and very quickly spikes your insulin levels – leading directly to obesity and all the problems that result from it.  New York University Professor Marion Nestle argues that although it’s not natural, the body doesn’t process high fructose corn syrup all that much differently than it does table sugar – but that table sugar should be avoided anyway.  And then, of course, we have the argument that HFCS and sugar are both exactly the same, and that consumed in moderation, HFCS can be a part of a healthy, well-balanced diet.

And that we should stop confusing people about it all!

As in so many things when it comes to eating well, it’s important to cut through the overwhelm and focus on the basic facts that are most important to you as a consumer of food – and, if you choose, food-like products.  What both Professor Nestle and Dr. Hyman agree upon are these three things, which cannot be denied by any of the players involved:

  1. Americans eat WAY too much sugar in all its forms.   100 years ago, Americans ate somewhere around one pound of sugar a year.  Today, the average American consumes one pound of sugar every two to four days – which means we eat anywhere from 90 to 180 pounds of sugar every year!  Our ever increasing obesity rates – and all of obesity’s related health issues – are no coincidence.  Whether it’s table sugar or corn syrup of the high fructose variety, we simply need to quit eating so much of it.
  2. This is easier said than done.  Because farm subsidies for corn make using HFCS in food products much cheaper than using regular sugar, high fructose corn syrup is in almost everything you’d find in the average grocery store, even places you’d least expect to find it – such as your sandwich bread, your salad dressings, and most alarmingly, just about every food product that is specifically targeted to children.  It’s nearly impossible for the average consumer to moderate consumption of an additive that is so ubiquitous.
  3. Since it is such a cheap additive that, among its other “benefits,” extends the shelf life of the food made with it, the presence of high fructose corn syrup is an indicator of a food that’s simply poor in nutritional quality.   You won’t find HFCS in an organic oatmeal cookie, or even in your aunt’s homemade apple pie.  That pie might not be the healthiest food on the planet, but for sure it’s better than the McDonald’s version – which of course, contains HFCS.

So bottom line, what’s the answer to this dilemma?   Not surprisingly, it’s the same answer to almost every dilemma we encounter when it comes to eating well and taking care of our health.

Eat real food!  Eat whole foods.  Eat foods that grow in the ground, that grow on trees, and grow in the sea.  Eat foods that aren’t processed in a factory and packaged in a bag or a box.  Eat foods that don’t have ingredients – foods like carrots and eggs that simply are what they are.

Of course, as humans we still have a sweet tooth, and it’s a wonderful thing to combine ingredients in our own kitchens to create marvelous recipes… even desserts!  Science labs and nature have both provided many sweet options that aren’t sugar or corn syrup…  from agave to honey, from date sugar to stevia, from aspartame to many things I can’t pronounce.  Are some of these good options?  Are some of them bad?

I know, you’re probably confused.  So am I.  Maybe after next week’s article, we’ll all be a little less so.  🙂

© 2012 The Wellness Wordsmith


6 thoughts on “A Sweet Surprise? Or Just Confused Consumers?

  1. I wonder if the next ad will say something along the lines of, “It’s corn sugar. Corn’s a vegetable. Vegetables are good for you!”

  2. Thanks for the post, Sue. I am appalled by the American diet. Even so called “health foods” are not. Whether its HFCS or another sweetener, we eat too much.You hit the nail on the head. Eat whole foods, all day every day. Obesity would vanish, most of the chronic health issues would disappear, and with our current and future knowledge of medicine, longevity would explode. And not just that, people would be healthy during their later years. What can we do to cut through the noise and get people to see how simplest it is?

  3. Ah, high fructose corn syrup! I remember years ago (before I went raw – I was still eating some processed foods) when I began paying attention to the food ingredients on the boxes. I had decided I wanted to avoid HFCS and it was almost impossible to find items that didn’t have it. Of course, now I don’t think about it anymore. The answer seems to be that if we all just ate whole, organic foods the concern wouldn’t exist and we all would feel better in the process. Great post!

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